If the prices of baseball cards have climbed out of your league, then consider the common plastic payment card.

In resale markets that have sprung up in parts of Europe and the Far East, collectors are paying hundreds of dollars, and sometimes thousands, for pieces of vinyl or acrylic with the intrinsic worth of pocket change.

Anticipating a similar boom in the United States, some prospectors are scouring old files and desk drawers, hoping to stumble on a pot of plastic gold.

The U.S. Awaits

"It's not surprising," says Robin Townend, a Barclays Bank executive in London who has caught a particularly severe case of the collecting bug. "A spinoff industry has developed around the phenomenon."

For bankers and others dabbling in the types of cards and technologies that spawned the collecting craze, it is a question of when it spreads to the United States, and what items become coveted.

Most of the overseas activity is in telephone cards with high-quality graphics and computerized memories, like the prepaid smart cards that replace coins in French or Japanese public phones. Billions of such cards have been produced since the late 1970s, so collecting requires a patient and discriminating eye. It also can be painful.

"If only I'd have known, I would have held on to all the cards I threw out," says Arlen Lessin of Lessin Technology Group, New York.

As a consultant to the French government more than a decade ago, Mr. Lessin had his hands on a veritable card-technology Smithsonian. Office moves and career adjustments have left him a relative pauper -- though still able to build the house in the photo on page 1.

But without people like Mr. Lessin, there would be no story here.

The hobby has acquired a name: fusilately. (The root, "fusil," refers to a melting process in the making of plastics.) The French word, fusilatilly, also means gun collecting -- a strange coincidence for a country swept by card mania.

National phone companies in France, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere have offices that cater to the needs of people who want to buy cards and hoard them. Unused ones are worth more.

American Cachet

The field is covered by newsletters. at least two price catalogues, and International Telephone Cards, a magazine published in Britain. Britain alone has several dealers, says Mr. Townend. One in London, First Phonecard. specializes in U.S. cards.

High-tech cards from the United States, still few in number. have an appeal among Europeans akin to that of blue jeans and MTV. Perhaps the most prized is a telephone, card issued last year by Nynex Corp. with a design commemorating the Democratic National Convention in New York.

Some of those have sold in Europe for as much as $1,500 -- about the same as a 1957 Mickey Mantle baseball card. (A less expensive one from the Nynex series is at the top of Mr. Lessin's array on page 1.)

Mr. Townend reports that a primitive British "Phonocard," distributed at an exhibition in 1985, recently sold for $900 -- about average for a 1968 Nolan Ryan.

One of the few known examples of a smart card produced in 1978 for a field test in a Paris hotel recently fetched $5,000. It is to stored-value cards what the rare 1909 Honus Wagner is to baseball cards, though it is well short of the latter's $400,000 price tag. But keep in mind that the first smart card patents are not yet 20 years old.

Could something similar happen to early U.S. credit or debit cards? Or affinity credit cards with logos of defunct airlines or sports teams? Or relics from the technology labs, like Visa's electron card or Super Smart Card?

"Stranger things have happened," says Einar Asbo, a technologist at Visa International in San Mateo, Calif. "It's crazy enough that some [phone] cards sell for far more than stamps that are far more rare."

Mr. Asbo holds out little hope that his stash of smart cards, including some "limited editions" from two decades of Visa's market research, will ever make him rich. "For cards to have value today, they have to be full-fledged phone cards," he says.

Profit in Paris

Mr. Asbo recently unloaded an old phone card -- one of only 150 produced for a technical standards conference -- for $700 at a stamp-market-turned-card-bazaar on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

"That makes me the only person who ever made money on the smart card," says Mr. Asbo. In that wry commentary about a technology that hasn't yet yielded a profit by any known accounting method, Mr. Asbo hit upon a truth that American credit card executives did not foresee.

In the 1980s, Visa led the banking industry to the conclusion that it could not justify replacing the magnetic-stripe credit card, a global standard since the 1970s, with the relatively expensive chip technology.

MasterCard International had campaigned unsuccessfully for smart cards, arguing they would pay for themselves in fraud and loss prevention.

No one considered the possibility that consumers might be attracted to the cards' novelty, rather than to their utility, and that a profitable business could be built around that appeal

And so the novelty market became dominated by prepaid cards the kind with value stored in the plastic-embedded chip or other encoding mechanism. The cards are debited with each use in pay telephones, transit systems, or point-of-sale terminals. When the value is exhausted, the user can buy a new card.

Lessons from Abroad

Phone companies and other issuers have every reason to encourage collecting. The unused value, or "permanent float," is easy and automatic profit.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is readying what could become one of the most significant stored-value card programs, has studied other countries to gauge the potential impact of permanent float.

"Companies don't like to talk about the extent of it, because it has become such an important part of their business case," says Jesse Samberg, director of business development for the MTA's MetroCard program.

He rates Japan the most developed and lucrative market, with prepaid card systems for pay telephones, public transportation, fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and vending machines. (Japan has thousands of card issuers and an estimated 1.5 million collectors, Mr. Townend says.) Float levels are running at about 20% -- except in the transit system.

"Transit cards are generally less successful as collectors' items, because there is a greater emphasis on delivering the service that the customer demands," Mr. Samberg says.

Telephone companies are more competitive and marketing oriented, and more inclined to produce the intricate designs and multicard series that excite collectors. Permanent float in the British and Italian phone systems is about 15%, Mr. Samberg estimates.

Collecting blossomed relatively late in France, despite its being the smart-card pioneer, Mr. Samberg says. Its permanent float is below 15%, but that would still be a significant sum to the national telephone company.

If a U.S. collecting market develops, historians might trace its beginning to April 20, 1993, at the Cardtech/Securtech conference in Arlington, Va. At the end of a long day of mostly technical seminars, Robin Townend, the banker and super collector, changed the pace by delivering an hourlong primer on collecting.

When he finished, many in the audience of 100 rushed forward to grab the international phone-card order forms that Mr. Townend brought with him.

"The collector market is now a key business opportunity for prepaid card operators, and it is also a business opportunity for the collector," says Mr. Townend, senior research manager at Barclays. The bank was responsible for a crucial test of French smart-card technology, at a British health club in 1988.

Mr. Townend illustrated his talk with samples Gibraltar, Macau, and Singapore as well as from "more developed" markets.

He has Japanese-made Vismac cards, whose changing patterns of iron filings tell how much value is left to spend.

He showed "mosaic" designs from Denmark. Buy nine phone cards to complete the so-called Copenhagen puzzle. Another four-card set serves as a portable chessboard.

He has a prototype French smart card from the 1970s autographed by Roland Moreno, the inventor and holder of the first worldwide patents.

"The collecting phenomenon is not here yet, but it's positive for the industry," says Ben Miller, a Washington-area newsletter publisher and co-sponsor of the CardTech meeting, who asked Mr. Townend to speak.

"It tells you that real free markets are operating around the world, doing all sorts of things with cards that no one anticipated," Mr. Miller.

Hindrances to Collecting

Prepaid cards may be about to bust out in the United States, but there are reasons to doubt they will follow the European model:

* Because of New York's sheer size and visibility, the transit system's MetroCard could have a national impact on the technology's acceptance. But as Mr. Samberg says, transit cards tend to be devalued by collectors. And at least in the beginning, riders will be getting the mundane magnetic-stripe card.

* Two long-distance providers -- Allnet Communications Services Inc. and Western Union Financial Services Inc. -- recently introduced prepaid calling cards. But the cards are neither plastic nor collectible. They are pieces of paper with code numbers that give callers access long distance network. The numbers are valid until the value in the account is exhausted.

* The banking industry's current best hope, Electronic Payment Services Inc., may also confound collectors. The joint venture of four banking companies, led by CoreStates Financial Corp. of Philadelphia, is testing a prepaid card.

But when the program goes live, it is expected to be integrated with the MAC automated teller machine service. Value would be stored in the chips of ATM cards, making unused plastic hard to come by. MAC test cards or prototypes might be more collectible and valuable.

Going to School

One prepaid-card market is beginning to thrive and may hold out some hope for collectors.

Collegiate Trends, a marketing newsletter, recently listed 14 large universities that have issued magnetic-stripe or smart cards for use in bookstores, cafeterias, libraries, etc.

Some programs are branching off campus. Florida State University's FSU card, for example, carried by 38,000 students, is accepted by 300 merchants in the Tallahassee area and in Honor and Plus automated teller machines.

Prepaid college cards may be functional enough, and scarce enough, to make collecting worthwhile. Then again, if cards are personalized -- carrying students' names or photos -- they will lack the resale value of generic European phone cards. But they may have historical value, which may or may not be financially significant. That's for the market to decide.

"Who's to know?" says Visa's Mr. Asbo. "We are dealing with murky aspects of life." Harvey Stack, a partner in Stack's, a noted New York collectibles dealer, sees the overseas card craze as analogous to the coin market.

Collecting is generally indigenous," he says. "The greatest U.S. coin collections are in the U.S. In France, it is French coins, and now cards.

"But this is not to say collecting [cards] doesn't go on here. A guy who works for me collects credit cards. Whenever one of mine expires, he wants it -- it's one of the cheapest collectibles around."

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